TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, who served for 16 months after he was appointed to finish the term of fellow Republican Mel Martinez, announced Tuesday he will try to win election to the chamber on his own.
LeMieux said he will seek the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who is seeking his third term.
The 41-year-old Republican said the country is on the verge of financial collapse and he is the only candidate with Washington experience to address the problem.
His biggest problem might be his close ties to former Gov. Charlie Crist, who was a Republican when he appointed LeMieux to the Senate but then bolted the party to mount a failed Senate bid, angering many in the party.
LeMieux emerged as a fiscal conservative in the Senate, saying the wasteful spending he saw in Washington was beyond what he would have imagined.
Among ideas he supported was cutting federal spending and capping it at 2007 levels for the next decade, a move that he said would balance the budget by 2013 and cut the deficit in half by 2020.
“I think we’re on the verge of financial collapse,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Our spending is out of control.”
LeMieux served as Crist’s chief of staff when Crist served as attorney general and governor. LeMieux was also the mastermind of Crist’s successful 2006 run for governor, one of the bright spots nationally for the GOP in a year when Republican candidates didn’t fare well elsewhere.
Crist, with LeMieux as his top adviser, rose to national acclaim as a moderate Republican. After Martinez announced he would step down, LeMieux interviewed for the appointment. Afterward, he stood beside the then-governor and described himself as a “Charlie Crist Republican.”
After vetoing Republican priority bills on education and abortion and abandoning the party to run for the Senate last year, Crist became deeply unpopular within the GOP establishment. Republican Marco Rubio won the Senate seat and replaced LeMieux.
LeMieux’s words are already being used against him, as Republican insiders took to Twitter to criticize the announcement.
“The phrase “Charlie Crist Republican” is like saying “I’m Doctor Athiest von Gay, The French Celebrity Abortionist,” tweeted Rick Wilson, a Republican political consultant serving as an unpaid adviser to former state Rep. Adam Hasner, who has formed a Senate exploratory committee.
LeMieux was careful to avoid mentioning Crist on his campaign website. He talks of his experience as deputy attorney general and as chief of staff to a Florida governor without saying who his boss was.
Later Tuesday, during a webcast in which he took questions posted through Facebook, he addressed his ties to Crist.
“I was appointed by Governor Crist and as many of you know I worked for Governor Crist and I was disappointed when he left the Republican Party.
I’m not going to say anything bad about the governor, he’s my friend, but I could not walk with him when he walked down that path of leaving the Republican Party,” Lemieux said. “I will always be appreciative to him for the opportunities for public service he gave me.”
LeMieux told the Associated Press he shouldn’t be judged by who he worked for, but rather his record in Washington.
“I’m my own man and you just need to look at how I voted in the Senate,” he said.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos is also seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Nelson.
LeMieux said that unlike Hasner and Haridopolos, he can say he has never voted for a tax increase nor sought an earmark.
“I never supported an earmark. They’re a soft form of corruption,” LeMieux said.
His campaign website prominently features federal spending issues and the national debt.
“During my time in the Senate what I witnessed was truly staggering. Most people know that Washington has a spending problem. Let me tell you, I think it’s much worse than you think,” LeMieux says in an announcement video.
The video also takes aim at his former Senate colleague.
“Senator Bill Nelson is a big part of the problem,” LeMieux says. “Bill Nelson and I voted very differently when we served together in Washington. He voted liberal, I voted conservative. His vision is for bigger government, my vision is for smaller government, as it was intended.”
Should LeMieux return to the Senate, he’d serve with Rubio, who criticized Crist for sending LeMieux there in the first place.
“I don’t think there’s anyone closer to Charlie Crist’s politics, maybe in the world, than George LeMieux,” Rubio said when LeMieux was appointed.